California Recall

Getting Along Famously

One candidate’s white-hot star power makes this an election campaign like no other

Amy Wilentz is the author of “Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier” and the novel “Martyrs’ Crossing.” She is at work on a book about the recall and California.

28 September 2003
Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2003 The Los Angeles Times

By Amy Wilentz

Oh, for the glorious days when the local media didn’t really bother covering state politics because, well, state politics just didn’t make very good television. Sacramento was filled with guys who looked, acted and talked more or less like Cruz Bustamante — and let’s be honest: That just doesn’t attract viewers.</>

And so California’s politicians bumbled onward in blessed obscurity. Until the recall.

Now they are in the spotlight every day. Bustamante himself, feeling the cameras’ judgmental stare, has gone so far as to abandon his eyeglasses. The governor is trying hard not to seem physically awkward.

But those are the least interesting developments. Today, the cameras have what they need to make the political runway an appealing place to tape: They have Uncle Sam suits, they have D-cups, they have blue cowboy hats and matching boxers, they have the Chickenator (a person in a chicken costume who appears at every campaign stop), they even have some candidates who are willing to render their platforms in operatic form in front of the cameras.

It may seem as if all this pageantry is the show, and it’s true that the sheer number of candidates has been given a lot of ink, a lot of air time. But despite the political importance of the recall itself, despite the amusement quotient implicit in a large candidate body (so to speak), one person alone is responsible for the intense interest that this election has inspired. No amount of breast-waving and chicken-impersonating could have attracted the media the way Arnold does.

With Schwarzenegger at the center of things, all the rules have changed.

Because of his job, Schwarzenegger is a talented media manipulator. He is close to a genius at recognizing product and selling it. He knows how to push something, especially himself. He wants to reach the consumer, and he doesn’t do it personally — he never has. Actors don’t.

That’s one reason why this is a campaign that — more than any other in California history — consists of purposeful image-making, so much so that at times, the citizen/voter is left entirely out of the game. The little guys on the runway are doing it for sport and to get attention, but the big boy is serious, and his image-making is more powerful than any chicken suit.

Schwarzenegger is such good “copy” that the media would cover him eating a ham sandwich. This past Sept. 11, Schwarzenegger stood in the setting sun and lit memorial yahrzeit candles at the entrance to the Museum of Tolerance on Pico Boulevard. Schwarzenegger has donated at least $750,000 to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which runs the museum.

A rabbi spoke to those assembled in front of the museum about the lessons of Sept. 11. Schwarzenegger’s wife, Maria Shriver, read short biographies of firefighters lost at the World Trade Center while her husband lit the candles with a red barbecue lighter. They both wore black, and when he wasn’t fiddling with the lighter, Schwarzenegger kept his hands folded before him in an actor’s gesture of solemnity and grief. Among the assembled whom the rabbi and Shriver addressed were about 100 representatives of the news media and two curious young neighborhood boys in soccer uniforms and yarmulkes. And no one else.

On the news, it looked like a special, outdoor synagogue service. But they forgot to invite the congregation.

As usual at Schwarzenegger events, the public was not around. Arnold uses the public to walk through, trailed by cameras. It shakes his hand and it asks for autographs, but it has no access.

On Thursday, he held a “Town Hall” at the Los Angeles Center Studios. I use quotes around “Town Hall” because although that is what the Schwarzenegger campaign calls these events, there is never any “town” and there is never any “hall.” The homey, old-fashioned designation has no real place in the way politics are played in America today, but it is good for promotional purposes. It would not sound as sincere and well meaning to have called the event “Arnold’s fifth staged event with pre-selected supporters.”

The “Town Hall” was held in Studio 6, a cavernous sound studio familiar to Schwarzenegger, he pointed out, because he filmed scenes from “Terminator 3” and “Collateral Damage” there. The “Town Hall” was hosted by talk-radio personality Sean Hannity and the Republican Jewish Coalition of Los Angeles. The guests who were to question the candidate (hence the name “town”) were invited by JoinArnold, Schwarzenegger’s grass-roots, Internet-based organization; by KABC, the local Hannity carrier; and by the Republican Jewish Coalition of Los Angeles. When Schwarzenegger came into the “room,” he received a standing ovation from the “people.”

In the real world (where I have attended altogether too many town halls) the audience might have been presumed to contain at least one Arnold hater, at least one wild-haired person who wanted to question Arnold closely about alien abductions, at least one older person deeply concerned about the Army-McCarthy hearings, and at least one stark raving nutter or stalker. But this was a made-for-broadcast audience. During breaks, they came down from their seats, hair neatly coiffed and blazers blue, to shake the movie star’s hand and to get his autograph. There was little further chance for interaction.

Three-quarters of the show was devoted to a sycophantic interview by Hannity, and one-quarter to questions from the audience. The toughest question from the audience was one about where Arnold Schwarzenegger stands on drive-by shootings of children. He didn’t exactly say he was against them, but I’m sure this was an oversight; he used the question instead as another opportunity to tout his inner-city games program and his after-school initiative.

Arnold wasn’t included in the taping of the Jay Leno “recall” show Monday. But it was still all about him. The studio audience was dominated by — candidates. Who were ostensibly being given “equal time” in return for Leno’s allowing Schwarzenegger to declare his candidacy on the show last month. (One wonders what to make, then, of Oprah’s hourlong, up-sucking interview with Schwarzenegger, of Larry King’s, of Hannity’s … There is a crossover these days between news shows and entertainment shows that is turning equal time into a meaningless irony.) In the interest of equal time, Leno asked the 90 candidates what they would do as governor, and had them respond simultaneously. They sounded like a barnyard or the interior of the monkey house at the old Central Park Zoo, but upon reflection, their cacophonous response had at least as much political clarity and meaning as some of the pronouncements of the major candidates.

These days, we’re being hit from all sides with the recall — not just local coverage but national, not just news shows but entertainment programs. The election is making a lot of people more famous than they used to be, from Mary Carey to Tom McClintock to the already moderately famous Arianna Huffington.

Only one person is not more famous from entering this race than he used to be, and that is Arnold Schwarzenegger. His candidacy — and the evolution of entertainment media that led up to it — is changing the way Americans think about elections, about who can run for office. Someone like Schwarzenegger grabs the media’s eye, and the public seems willing to go with him, no matter how much he avoids them. It is because of the pure power of celebrity in our culture — the attention it attracts, the loyalty it engenders, the curiosity, the familiarity, the belief, the love. How can an old-style, Sacramento drudge in gray flannel compete?